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The Gibson Girls: The Kardashians of the Early 1900s

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Forget about Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was all about Evelyn, Camille, and Irene, the original "Gibson Girls" and the models for the drawings that changed the way America thought about women.

Though the 1890s may seem buttoned up by modern standards, they were anything but. Independent, well-read, and urbane, a new class of woman was emerging in America's cities. This "New Woman" did not care to be chaperoned in public. She was athletic and free-spirited. Above all, she was educated, taking advantage of new access to secondary school and college.

She was also scary. By the 1890s, the reform fervor of suffragists and their sisters had ceased to be cute and started to be all too real. The status quo was being challenged by Progressive politics, new divorce laws, and women who chose to work outside the home. Charles Dana Gibson, a popular illustrator, looked down on reform zeal in women. And so he created "the Gibson girl," a catch-all representation of a kinder, gentler New Woman—one who rode bikes, wore casual clothing, and flaunted her attitude, but was above all beautiful and anonymous. By the 1910s, to visit Gibson's office was to push your way through hundreds of gorgeous models with big hair and small waists, each vying for a go as one of Gibson's girls.

If ever there was a figure that expressed ambiguity about its subject, it was the Gibson Girl. Gibson's creations poked men with pins and looked at them under magnifying glasses, towered over infatuated suitors, and even played golf—all while rocking gigantic pompadours and chignons, crisp shirtwaists and impeccably corseted hips. You wouldn't see her at a settlement house or a suffrage rally, but you might spot her by the Ouija board or by the sea, working her hose and bathing costume with all of the self-conscious hauteur of a Kim K. selfie.

"Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl." Camille Clifford, a Belgian songbird, sang this tune with great irony in 1907, long after she won an international magazine contest in search of the woman who best embodied Gibson's girl. Known for her 18-inch waist and her signature walk, she took the theatrical world by storm without benefit of acting skills or much more than the rumor that she had eloped with a British lord. She can also be blamed for the high-maintenance fashion craze that was the S-curve, an overtly sensuous look achieved by a corset laced nearly to the knees.

Evelyn Nesbit, another one of Gibson's models, boasted of a career that started as the first supermodel and ended with the first "trial of the century" of the 1900s. Like many others, Gibson was entranced by her luxurious, over-the-top hair, which he molded into a question mark for one of the most famous Gibson Girl drawings, entitled "Woman: The Eternal Question." A recent book claims that a photograph of Evelyn even inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables.

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Evelyn appeared on magazine covers, pouted as a "Florodora girl," and was eventually seduced by notorious womanizer Stanford White, who infamously placed her on a red velvet swing in his apartment so he could admire her before deflowering her. Eventually, she married millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, who shot White to death after spotting him at Madison Square Garden. The trial that ensued put O.J. Simpson's to shame, with wall-to-wall tabloid coverage and a deadlocked jury. After her husband was convicted, Evelyn went on to work in silent films, burlesque, and even operated her own Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Ironically, the least famous of the Gibson Girls was probably the original, and Irene Langhorne Gibson was far closer to the independent New Woman than her husband liked to admit. Known for her supermodel looks and her Virginia fortune, Irene fended off plenty of proposals before falling in love with Gibson. But though her tall stature and haughty, almost arrogant looks inspired her husband, Irene was far more noteworthy for her passion for Progressive politics. Her philanthropic efforts helped troubled women and children, and her ability to use her society connections effected real change. While Gibson turned women back into Girls, Irene quietly and tirelessly showed just what a woman could achieve. 

Additional References: The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion, Volume 12; Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women's Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism; Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918; The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930; Early College Women: Determined to be Educated; Nancy: The Story of Mary Astor; Encyclopedia Virginia: Irene Langhorne Gibson; Leslie Stuart: Composer of Florodora; American Eve; Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic

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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)
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History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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geography
The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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